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Fighting corruption in Ukraine

Markian Ostaptschuk / dcAugust 18, 2016

In Ukraine, a conflict is brewing between the public prosecutor’s office and the anti-corruption authority. It could stall key reforms promised by Kyiv to the European Union.

Ukraine Sicherheitskräfte
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/V. Shevchenko

Serhiy Leshchenko says a "corruption counterrevolution" is underway in Ukraine. Leshchenko is a member of the "Block Petro Poroshenko" parliamentary faction and the parliamentary committee on combating corruption. The current action by the public prosecutor's office against the new National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NACB) is causing a stir.

"This is an attempt to make the NACB irrelevant," Leshchenko said. He believes it's also an attempt to stop public servants from being held accountable if they make false statements in a new electronic income reporting system.

The conflict escalated when the public prosecutor raided the NACB offices. There was even physical violence. NACB staff members were briefly detained. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, an associate of President Poroshenko, defended the move, saying that the NACB had illegally tapped people's phones, an accusation that the NACB denies.

Ukraine Jurij Luzenko und Petro Poroschenko in Kiew
Prresident Poroshenko (R) congratulates Lutsenko on his election as prosecutor in May, 2016Image: picture alliance/AA/V. Shtanko

Conflict affects Friedrich Ebert Foundation

In recent days, a corruption investigation by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) against an NACB employee also came to light. She reportedly received illegal payments for training services from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is affiliated with Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party. Although NACB staff are permitted to take on teaching duties, the SBU claims to have identified "corrupt practices" in the cooperation with the German foundation. NACB Director Artem Sytnyk has dismissed the allegations as "nonsense."

Matthes Buhbe of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's regional office in Kyiv is also perplexed by the SBU's claims. The NACB employee worked on a paid basis, and the amounts in question are small, he said. "All fees received are subject to taxation," Buhbe told DW.

He assumes that his foundation has been caught in the middle of the conflict between the two offices, and says there is no corruption on the part of the foundation.

Demands from the EU and the IMF

The establishment of an anti-corruption authority is one of the EU's conditions for the safeguarding of financial aid and visa liberalization for Ukraine. The electronic income reporting system for civil servants, or "E-Declaration" is also part of the reform process.

President Poroshenko himself come under criticism. He promised that the reporting system would be up and running by August 15. However, the state authority on communication and information protection announced that the system's software did not provide reliable data protection, and could therefore not be given the green light. For this reason, it said any information in the "E-Declaration" would not be legally valid and therefore could not be used as evidence in court. That would impede the work of the NACB, whose job it is to check whether the official salaries paid to civil servants are in line with their actual standards of living.

After massive pressure from civil society, Poroshenko has now declared that the "E-Declaration" will come into effect on August 31. However, doubts remain about whether the reporting system will actually work. The conflict about the reform projects is also taking a toll on Ukraine's relations with the EU.

Visa liberalization in danger

Roland Freudenstein of the Brussels-based Martens Center for European Studies told DW that the basis of trust between Ukraine and the EU will be undermined if Kyiv does not fulfill its obligations in the battle against corruption. The EU could also suspend its commitments, as in the case of visa liberalization for Ukrainians.

Wilfried Jilge of the German Society for Foreign Policy said it's important that Ukraine remains mindful of the necessity for reform. The launch of the "E-Declaration" program is an important condition for international financial aid. The public prosecution and judiciary are also in need of reform, he said.

"It's impossible to pursue large-scale cases of corruption as long as the old judicial system remains in place," warned Jilge.